Friday, May 27, 2005
an explanation, part ii
the german state of mind at the fin de siecle isn't hard to conceive for a postmodern man -- we hold it. the ideas that are common to the modern world -- struggle as strength, strength as will, will as experience, experience as virtue, virtue as not social nor merely ethical but spiritual, individual freedom. very little about the modern mindset thinks good of law, government or tradition, which are almost universally held in contempt as the implements of oppression or tyranny. this was the basis of the romantic impulse from the time of herder, hamann and goethe -- to throw off the burden of a society which demanded responsibility for a perfect spiritual isolation.
how it came to be our mindset it the story of the first world war.
the artist had led society in this development, as they virtually always do. movements are a confluence of flows, of course, but the modern age could be said to be born in art in 1913, with the premiere of stravinsky's ballet, le sacre du printemps (the rite of spring). the composer collaborated with diaghilev and the dancer/choreographer nijinsky, whose dynamic ballets russes had taken europe by storm in 1910. nijinsky's choreography to debussy's music in le apres-midi d'un faune had been utterly shocking to civilized parisians that year -- complete with a masturbatory scene, capturing both the unlimited personal expression and the desire to shock inherent in the new modern ethic. indeed, as we have seen, this desire is rooted in the philosophy of nietzsche -- of which all the moderns, including stravinsky, diaghilev and nijinsky, were adorers -- which praised the intensity of experience as the highest virtue.
le sacre went farther. nijinsky threw away all traditional concepts of beauty in dance. smoothness was destroyed for angularity, harmony for dissonance in both dance and music. overt sexuality dominated. for the audience of paris -- themselves becoming more and more a part of the performance of the ballets russes as the art encouraged surprise and emotional overload -- the shock and energy were too much, and the performance was staged as the crowd rioted.
in the immediate aftermath of the war, stravinsky's ballet would be widely seen for the modern masterwork it is. but the mindset of paris -- indeed, the west -- changed radically to accommodate that view. it is much harder for us to adopt the mindset of a parisian or londoner of this period. tradition, authority, law, morality, society -- above all, the selfless execution of one's duty to others -- represented the highest aspirations. artists, though admired and encouraged, were also feared and reviled as loose cannons. self-expression was generally disdained, as time-honored manner and procedure were seen to ensure the smooth operation of civilization and allow the whole to attain desirable goals. the point of living was to behave in an honorable way, a sporting way, to remain unflappable and poised despite all that may come, so as to ensure the continued peace and tolerance of a god-fearing civilization. to do otherwise was to entertain barbarity.
however, there was also an awareness of the age and increasing difficulty of civility in adapting to change. decadence was a topic much discussed in intellectual and popular circles alike. melancholy was the general mood of the waning years of the 19th c, as the explosion of the impressionism gave way to expressionism and cubism, leaving art less and less relevant as social commentary and fuelling a sense of confusion and aimlessness. tremendous advances in german industrialization, technology and urbanization in conjunction with a thoroughly modern philosophy were observed with resignation. an undercurrent of doom began to rear in art, particularly in the poetry of thomas hardy and others.
the systematic and materialist philosophy of western civilization represented all that the german romantics hated. duty had little analogue in german kultur, where experience and self-expression were seen as paths to an superior existence. conversely, germanic thought was considered barbaric, provincial and undisciplined in the centers of high western civility. the conflict of world conceptions ultimately became the driving force in the war, well after any archduke or trade dispute was forgotten, prolonging it beyond endurance. one side considered itself engaged in a predestined darwinian struggle to manifest the german world-soul which could not be lost, while the other fought for nothing less than the preservation of civilization itself -- against exactly what had been seen in le sacre and the ballets russes.
great euphoria, even a sense of relief accompanied the declarations of war in 1914, particularly in germany, where the national destiny was seen to be at hand. most expected a war something like the napoleonic wars -- armies in movement, meeting on open battlefields. few understood how technology had changed; those who did frequently misconceived the consequences -- the machine gun was seen before the war to be a powerful offensive weapon, for example. indeed, there was nothing in the experience of civilization prior to the war that prepared it in any way for what had just befallen it.
the story of the war, taken from fussell's brilliant "the great war and modern memory", has been laid out here before: 1914 -- 1915 -- 1916 -- 1917 -- 1918. furious maneuvering in the opening months yielded a stalemate, with both sides entrenching in flanders by october 1914. the full horror of attrition in a war of efficiency had stretched ghastly wings over europe by 1915.
the war quickly grew so entirely appalling to its participants that a sort of wide-eyed shellshock can be said to have set in throughout civilization. the scale of the effort was utterly incomprehensible as industry mobilized for total war -- the battles were the largest ever fought in the history of man, with dead and wounded to match. abstraction quickly proved the only useful tool of comprehension, irony the only tool of conversation, and the shattered and frightened were forced to resort to mere sentimentality to avoid madness. fussell:
the need for a stiffening of (british) home-front morale at the beginning of 1916 can be gauged by the poet laureate's issuing in january an anthology of uplifting literary passages of a neo-platonic tendency titled the spirit of man. such was the military situation, robert bridges implied in his introduction, that "we can turn to seek comfort only in the quiet confidence of our souls." we will thus "look instinctively to the seers and poets of mankind, whose sayings are the oracles and prophecies of loveliness and lovingkindness." the news from belgium and france, not to mention turkey, was making it more and more necessary to insist, as bridges does, that "man is a spiritual being, and the proper work of his mind is to interpret the world according to his higher nature...." such an outlook is now indispensable, for we are confronted with "a grief that is intolerable constantly to face, nay impossible to face without that trust in god which makes all things possible."reality had become so horrifying, so ghoulish -- the rape of civilization -- as to be truly beyond belief in a way that many desensitized postmoderns probably cannot conceive. faced with a situation so absurd and shocking (the ultimate expression of modern art, many ruefully observed) droves -- entire classes -- intellectual, bourgeois, proletarian -- first began to back away from reality, eventually to turn and flee at full metaphysical speed. as the war effort just kept from falling apart on both sides, the influenza of 1918-19 struck as if from the fields of the dead and rotting to bring the devastation home to the civilians with flourish.
the rejection of horrible reality quickly adapted to the implements available to it. language describing events beyond willing comprehension deteriorated to euphemism. unthinkable news was substituted by propaganda. contemplation of matters too terrible to comprehend yielded to a widespread numbness and disengagement. earnestness collapsed into irony. society and faith in something larger gave way to alienation and despair. the western psyche, forsaking the outward, turned inward -- to the self, to the abstract, to the ideal, to the fantastic.
the war echoes in our society even now by our continued devotion to these instruments of subjective isolation, by which we create our own realities in favor of external truth -- indeed, the age of mass ideology began in the war and has not dissipated. they soon became the tools of a second outbreak of global war, which most germans -- having in defeat fallen into a state of wild denial, knowing as they did that the german racial-world-spirit would lead them to glory and ecstasy -- believed to be predestined from the very end of the first war. indeed, the nazi party was founded in 1920.
germany would lose that war as well, of course -- but the idealism, individualism, nihilism and subjectivity of the german worldview rose victorious and unchallenged throughout the west.